Oct 30, 2016

Remember Rio? You know, the Olympics?

It has been two months since the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympics and it is difficult to recall a Games having so little impact on this sporting nation. Prior to the Games there were the usual concerns with building progress and social problems in a foreign nation. People were scared of the Zika virus, pollution in Guanabara Bay and Russian dopers. During the Games the sports proceeded as usual – there were medal winners, there were losers, there were dopers and there were world records. But did the Games resonate with the Australian public? And has there been any lasting impact in Australia from the Games of the XXXI Olympiad?

Disclaimer: the author of this article is not without bias. The tyranny of distance from the mainstream of Australia, and an ever-increasing scepticism of the Olympic has continued to grow and blossom. What follows must bear this in mind.


Nearly 30 years have passed since the men’s 100m final at the Seoul Olympics. Australians have become far less naïve in the intervening period. Almost any medal awarded at an Olympics comes with a burdensome proviso. The Russian scandal prior to the Games did little to restore faith in the purity of the sport. In fact, the scandal was met with an indifference and an apathy that spoke of a deep-seated distrust of the cleanliness of Olympic athletes.

When speaking of the men’s 100m, it is worth recalling that the entire board of Jamaica’s Anti-Doping Commission was forced to resign at the end of 2013. This was due to the “public perception” of the existence of conflicts of interest and a lack of drug-testing due to insufficient staff to complete a rigorous regime. It took until mid-2015, only a year prior to the Rio Olympics, for JADCO to begin performing blood-testing. The World Anti-Doping Agency have been impressed by the improvements to JADCO since the start of 2014, but it is an interesting story in lieu of Jamaica’s dominance of the shorter track events.

Criticism of anti-doping efforts should not be limited to nations with limited resources. At the Rio Olympics, 500 fewer tests than intended were carried out by the World Anti-Doping Agency. In some sports, including weightlifting, no blood-testing was carried out at all. The IOC’s report describes an under-resourced and under-funded anti-doping regime perhaps more indicative of a poor island nation. Not an organisation that turns over $6billion each Olympiad.


Australia’s long-held obsession with swimming can be easily explained – we have traditionally won medals in the pool. We love winners. But swimming hands out far too many gold medals – a total of 32. In athletics, there is gold medal for the 100m sprint but not the 100m hopping or the 100m running backwards. And the rest of the world is catching on – all you need is a couple of great swimmers (Michael Phelps?) and you can take home a veritable mountain of metal. In Rio, Australian athletes disappointed in the pool.

The David Crawford-led Independent Sport Panel Report estimated that each gold medal was costing in the order of $15million and each medal $4million. The report noted that the Australian Sports Commission overwhelmingly directs monies toward elite Olympic sports. It makes sense that we would spend money on sports, like swimming, where we think we have the best chance of winning medals. But where does the distribution of funds become corrupt? As an example, water polo received as much money as golf, lawn bowls and tennis combined. More government money was given to the archers of Australia than the cricketers, despite there being over 100 times as many cricketers. It is easy to imagine swathes of golfers, lawn bowlers, tennis players and cricketers jealously ignoring the Olympics.

Participation rates and funding is a controversial area. Smaller sports can quite rightly claim that basing funding on participation will result in a narrowing of possibilities. But when the funding is for the “elite” of that sport rather than the rank-and-file participants, this argument hangs by a thread.

Let’s talk fencing. In Australia, excepting those fine, upstanding persons who erect partitions, there cannot be too many fencers. In comparison to golf, it must be a relatively short road to the top. Fencing, not the one with barbed wire, gets an amount of funding from the Australian Sports Commission as it is an Olympic sport. Now the Australian Fencing Federation (check out their website, there are fewer gates than expected) spend that money disproportionately on the “elite” fencers at the expense of your average, garden-variety fencer. Our “elite” fencers didn’t make the Rio Olympics. To turn an argument on its head, no new fencers were inspired. Perhaps a few lost interest. So why exactly are we funding our “elite” fencers? Send them to the Northern Territory, there is a heap of land up here that could use a fence.


My fellow university alumnus Kim Brennan wrote an impassioned article for Fairfax wondering why Australia wasn’t proud of our athletes. Although she raised some excellent points about national pride and a better Australia, Brennan misses the mark. For a start, Australia is proud of our athletes especially on an individual level. Our Olympic athletes are already supported. But valid concerns are being raised about the level of that support. To be blunt, if somebody wanted to subsidise me so I could be a professional exerciser I hope that I would be absurdly grateful and wouldn’t be comparing myself to a rural doctor, single parent or research scientist. I hope that I would recognise the limits of my inspiration. And I would be thanking my lucky stars my hobby wasn’t in the arts.

Prior to the Games, Chef de Mission Kitty Chiller said the 410 Australians at the Olympics were aiming to win 15 gold and 45 medals overall. Australia’s best golfers didn’t bother with the Olympics and, due to Chiller’s hardline and almost martial stance on team rules, neither did our best tennis players. Subsequent to the Games, Chiller was proud of the “culture” established within the Olympic team. This is not a comment on the rights or wrongs of Nick Kyrgios’ or Bernard Tomic’s behaviour, but Chiller’s “culture” was unfortunately not one that won medals in spite of her stated aim. So what is it that the Australian Olympic team is trying to do? Are we aiming to win medals? Or are we aiming to have a team of people who toe the line and do as they’re told by rigid team management? Or are we aiming to have the perfectly legitimate and reasonable goal of a team that doesn’t necessarily win, but our nation is proud of the way they competed and represented us nonetheless? Note – this last goal probably doesn’t require an Australian Institute of Sport, in fact it would possibly be more achievable without it.


The embodiment of Chiller’s culture was, somewhat paradoxically, gold medallist Chloe Esposito. I don’t pretend to know a great deal about Esposito, but coincidentally our most recent modern pentathlon champion also embodies the Rio Olympic Games for me.

In Esposito we have, from all reports, a lovely and humble person who almost nobody had heard of prior to the games. She participates in one of the Olympic’s most obscure sports, made up of five mostly-obscure events. This sport has a shockingly low participation rate in Australia. With much self-sacrifice, including financially, Esposito invested an extraordinary amount in the Olympics, aided and abetted by the largesse of the Australian Sports Commission. She wins gold and there is a momentary kerfuffle. Less than two months later if you mentioned her name, the response would most likely be “Chloe who?”. Further, despite being a stellar person and a gold medallist, Esposito will have made almost zero lasting impact on the participation rates of young Australians in modern pentathlon. Wow. I can’t wait for Tokyo in 2020.

Oct 10, 2016

How Much For A Heinz?

It is difficult to quantify a person’s contribution to a football club. A traditional metric for players is to count games and celebrate milestones. But this tends to over-simplify the devotion, commitment and genuine love players have for their club, and that clubs have for their players.

Nowhere is this more apt than for Uni Blues’ Dirk Heinz. For while Heinz strode the field for the 200th time in a Blues jumper, his contribution to the club has been far, far greater.

Dirk Heinz surveys the Main Oval at Melbourne University

Instead of games, another way to measure a person’s contribution to a club is in time. 13 years have passed since then Under 19 Coach Tim Giles parked Dirk at centre half back against St Bernard’s. A young Heinz was dubbed “The Markologist” as he proceeded to grab everything that entered his vicinity.

“Intercept grabs, contested pack marks and the odd diving chest mark.  He had both ends of JJ Holland Park covered,” is how great friend and fellow Blue Matt Torney describes Heinz’s marking feats.

Another teammate, Tom Rankin, also thoroughly enjoyed Heinz’s marking abilities.

“As a midfielder, racking up stats with Heinzy in the team was a piece of cake. Makes for a good day when the guy who takes 10+ marks a game says ‘just run past and I’ll handball it to you’,” Rankin recalled.

Perhaps an unorthodox method of measuring a player’s worth is by counting the number of nicknames. Although a little unusual, the number of nicknames potentially represents the value that player has in his teammates’ hearts.

Heinzy, Diggler, Derek, Dick, CJ, Big Cat, Danny Tran, Domingo El Casillas, Four Goal Heinz, the Settler, Sven. Although some were self-appointed, this catalogue of nicknames point to a personality that others flock to. Together with his brother Jack, Dirk has entertained his teammates with impersonations that create an upbeat, vibrant and happy club.

Lovable, selfless, genuinely caring, riotously funny, are just some of the words others around the Blues have used to describe Heinz.

“Dirk has always had the respect of the playing group,” Torney said. “He is a friend to many and his efforts to try and keep the club’s spirits up especially during times of disappointment have been valued by all.”

The number of injuries footballers sustain are also a measure of a player. In this case, Heinz is no exception. Uni Blues’ president Joe Sturrock was surprised that Heinz made it to 200 games.

“It wasn’t because I didn’t think he was good enough, but more because of the way he plays and the fearless nature with which he goes about his footy,” Sturrock said. “I didn’t think his body would have lasted.”

Dirk Heinz celebrates on the Main Oval at Melbourne University

Rankin commented on his ability to relentlessly run backwards into packs and still come up with the ball. Torney concurs.

“There were times when Heinzy would fly blindly back into a pack, or dive on a ball that he had no right to compete for, that I feared for his life,” Torney said. “But sure enough he would emerge, battered and bruised, but with ball in hand.”

But, as ever, Heinz showed his commitment to the cause with hours in the gym developing resilience necessary to last all these years.

An easy way to calculate value is assigning a monetary value. In Dirk’s case, $50.

Heinzy’s grandfather, the late Jack Coventry, would watch Dirk play more often than not for the Uni Blues. In Jack’s later years his eyesight began to fail. But it mattered not as he still took up position in the Pavvy to listen to the sounds of the game that his two grandsons, Dirk and Jack, were participating in.

After each game Dirk would be slipped a $50 note by his grandfather so that he could enjoy the night “with the boys”. This beautiful and endearing moment speaks volumes for the type of person Dirk is and the type of family he comes from. It also speaks to the impact Dirk and his family had on Uni Blues and vice versa.

On the topic of family, perhaps the most unusual method for measuring Dirk’s contribution to Uni Blues is in sausage rolls. Not goals mind you, literally sausage rolls. The Heinz family, led ably by grandmother Eunice, have generously donated over 28,000 homemade sausage rolls to the Blues’ infamous afternoon teas over the past 13 years. An incredible number.

But this unusual measurement risks under-valuing the contribution Dirk and his family have made to Uni Blues.

Dirk’s parents, Karin and Tony, have donated an extraordinary amount to the Blues. Both are a fixture at games with Tony often called upon to put his general surgical skills in practice. Karin has been a tireless contributor who never asks for a thing in return. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see her working the canteen one minute, rubbing shoulders with players the next, and catching up with her many friends a few moments later, such is her devotion to her sons and the club they play for.

“Dirk has been one of the best exponents of what it is to be a Uni Blues footballer,” Torney says. “At a club where community and contribution are king, Dirk has been peerless.”

Uni Blues Matt Torney and Dirk Heinz celebrate a premiership win

Club president Sturrock agrees with this assessment of Heinz.

“Dirk is one of the best clubmen that I have known in my time at the Blues,” Sturrock said. “He is never one to sit back and let others do the work. More often than not he is the first to put his hand up and organise things off the field.”

Heinz has regularly organised the club’s social calendar. He has been MC at the Blues Ball on a number of occasions with his good friend and teammate Torney. He has sat on countless committees and offered his legal expertise when required.

By any measure, Dirk Heinz’s contribution to University Blues has been profound. After taking to the field for the 200th time in Blue and Black, he should be applauded long and loud. Not just for his games tally or his efforts on field, but for what he has given and continues to give for his beloved football club.

Apr 22, 2016

Footy and Politics in the Red Centre

Behind the scenes, it was an eventful off-season for the Central Australian Football League (CAFL). The fixture was released in early March with only one noteworthy change – a new team, Plenty Highway, will replace MacDonnell Districts in Division One. This might seem insignificant but the absence of MacDonnell Districts is but one indication of some earnest politicking in a complicated region.

The dry river bed of the ephemeral Todd River, Alice Springs, Northern Territory

Sid Anderson is an important man in Central Australia by any measure. He is a life member of the CAFL and a former captain and former coach of the Papunya Football Club. He recently retired as President of MacDonnell Regional Council, but continues to serve as a Councillor of the Luritja Pintubi Ward. He has served on the board of Central Land Council, Papunya Community Council and Ngurratjuta/Pmara Ntjarra Aboriginal Corporation. Undoubtedly, Anderson is a leader in the community.

Karl Hampton is a former Northern Territory Minister for Sport. He served in the NT parliament as Member for Stuart from 2006 to 2012. He serves as Chairperson of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) and as a board member of Imparja Television. Hampton is also on the committee of the Redtails Central Australian Football Club and his son Curtly plays for Adelaide in the AFL. There can be no question of Hampton’s influence on politics and football in the Central Australian community.

Seemingly at odds with his life membership of the CAFL, Anderson has been a driving force in trying to establish a ‘breakaway’ competition, the Wilurarra Tjutaku Football League (WTFL). Hampton has worked with Anderson to get the WTFL operating for the 2016 season. The plan involves teams from remote communities such as Papunya, Yuendumu, Areyonga, Laramba, Nyirripi, Mt Allan, Kintore, Mt Liebig, Ikuntji and Ltyentye Apurte playing in a community-based competition instead of the Alice Springs-based CAFL. Both men have called on the Northern Territory Football League and the CAFL to support them in their endeavours.

There is no suggestion Anderson and Hampton were doing anything but trying to act in what they believe is the communities’ best interests. Both men are concerned by the alcohol and anti-social behaviour young men from remote communities are exposed to when they stay in Alice Springs. By keeping these young men away from Alice Springs, they hope it will lead to healthier men and stronger communities. Although a noble goal, the WTFL proposal ignores and underestimates some significant issues while introducing a whole raft of supplementary problems.

Although broad descriptions with some unsavoury undertones, ‘alcohol’ and the attendant ‘anti-social’ behaviour are relatively problematic in Alice Springs. Indeed, statistics paint a horrifying picture in which the rates of drunkenness, domestic violence, assault, and damage to property far exceed the national average. Nevertheless, the remote communities are not somehow immune to these same problems. The suggestion that avoiding Alice Springs  will somehow insulate against social problems is demonstrably false.

Many people from remote communities spend a significant proportion of their lives in Alice Springs, football or no. Some work or go to school in town. Others visit family members or access service providers such as the Alice Springs Hospital or Central Australian Aboriginal Congress. While some young men who reside in Alice Springs are keen to play football for their home community, the difficulty in traveling hundreds of kilometres out of town may mean they are unable to play for their preferred team. The WTFL proposal seems to assume 22 players will be available and in their home community for each game.

Federal Demons train in preparation for a game in the Central Australian Football League

Long-distance travel is an unfortunate fact of life for people from remote communities. Hours spent in hot cars on the red, dusty, un-sealed roads of Central Australia are commonplace. On the surface, having a home game every second week is appealing when you live in Papunya. But this ignores the players who reside in Alice Springs. More pertinently it also ignores those communities who are in a geographically different direction. All of Papunya, Mt Liebig, and Haasts Bluff are near to each other, approximately 200-250km west of town, but these are the exception rather than the rule. Santa Theresa/Ltyentye Apurte is about 80km south-east of Alice Springs and footballers would have to travel through Alice Springs to play almost every other team in the WTFL significantly increasing their driving. Similarly, although Yuendumu is about 150km north of Papunya as the crow flies, the Tanami road runs back toward Alice Springs making this the most efficient route.

An unanswered question regarding the WTFL is would players support it, or would they jump ship from their communities for the chance to play on a bigger stage. Footballers of all abilities enjoy playing on immaculate grounds. The red dirt football games create a beautiful and iconic Australian image, but players would much prefer to be jogging out onto the MCG. The main ground in Alice Springs, Traeger Park, is of a high enough standard to host an AFL game each year. Growing grass is easy with plenty of sunlight and a consistent water supply. It is easy to imagine a car-load of footballers travelling along the road from Ntaria looking wistfully at the green expanses of Traeger Park or Albrecht Oval before continuing their long drive to the red dirt oval of Papunya or Yuendumu.

With the fixture released, it appears the CAFL will proceed largely as it did last year. The five town teams will play on Saturdays in Premier League while the ten community teams in Division One and Division Two will play on Sundays. The obvious exception to the participating community teams is MacDonnell Districts who are based around Papunya, Anderson’s home community. All CAFL games will be played in Alice Springs on Traeger Park, Albrecht Oval and Jim McConville Oval.

Practicalities aside, at its heart the development of the Wilurarra Tjutaku Football League is a play for power and influence. Anderson and Hampton want to see community people take control of their lives and recreation. Meanwhile, the established CAFL are loath to lose players and the accordant funding which would see their influence, control and power diminished. Changing demographics have already had an impact on the dominant and powerful town teams in recent years. Established footballing interests would not like to see this continue.

A quirk of Central Australian footy is that town teams are allowed to play a few registered community players in their Saturday games. The players can then play the next day for their community. Both of last year’s grand finalists, Federal and Wests, recruited heavily from remote communities to bolster their teams. Wests were a powerhouse in the early 2000s, winning five premierships. What followed were some lean years and dwindling numbers. David Wongway was one of Wests’ best in a losing grand final team, but he also rolled out for Ltyentye Apurte in Division One during the 2015 season. Similarly, Papunya’s Marcus McDonald was in Federal’s premiership side but spent his winter Sundays playing for his community team MacDonnell Districts.

Kicking a goal for the Federal Demons in a big win over Pioneer

Central Australia is a complicated region with Alice Springs at its heart. The complexity of social problems is unparalleled in modern Australia and football is but a reflection of this. Politics, power, money, race, and football – Hampton and Anderson have stirred up a hornet’s nest. Meanwhile, the CAFL have worked quietly behind the scenes refusing to comment publicly on the WTFL proposal. This weekend, under the big blue Centralian sky, attention will return to the field as young men from all over the region forget their woes and play football again.